By: Shannon Ralph
Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you have undoubtedly heard of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by Governor Mike Pence on Thursday of last week. Though Republican leaders in the state continue to insist that the law is in no way meant to encourage bigotry against gay and lesbian citizens, it is widely seen as a thinly-veiled license to discriminate.
The text of the law says that the state cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it is furthering a “compelling government interest” and acting in the least restrictive way possible. In short, the law allows anti-gay individuals and businesses to engage in acts of discrimination, as long as they do so under the veil of religious freedom.
Governor Pence insists that the law has nothing to do with GLBT citizens, but in attendance at the ceremonial signing were three professional anti-gay activists: Micah Clark, head of the American Family Association of Indiana, Curt Smith, president of Indiana Family Institute, and Eric Miller, Executive Director of Advance America, Indiana’s leading anti-GLBT organization. One cannot keep company such as this and then complain of being a victim of “mischaracterization” by the media.
The blatantly discriminatory law out of Indiana is alarming, but unfortunately, not at all surprising.
This great nation of ours has a long history of bigotry and discrimination masked as “freedom.” In 1861, under the banner of maintaining their “freedom” to own slaves, Confederates bombarded the Union army at Fort Sumter, thereby initiating America’s bloodiest war, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 620,000 soldiers.
In 1963, the Governor of Alabama flatly refused to uphold federal law, arguing that white people have the “freedom” to send their children to all-white schools. In the same year, the Klu Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham church, killing four little girls. Their platform? Bringing hope and “freedom” to white Christian America.
In 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, resorting to violence in exercising their “freedom” to persecute gays and lesbians as second class citizens who should remain on the outskirts of society.
In 1977, Miami became the first major U.S. city to pass an ordinance making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. In response, Anita Bryant organized the Save Our Children campaign to repeal the ordinance. Bryant grounded her arguments in religious terms. She contended that non-discrimination of LGBT people infringed on her “freedom” and discriminated against her “as a citizen and as a mother to teach my children and set examples and to point to others of God’s moral code as stated in the Holy Scriptures.” The campaign was successful and Miami repealed the ordinance.
And now, in 2015, a red state passed a law that protects a person’s individual “freedom” to discriminate against their fellow citizens on religious grounds. Business owners can now lawfully refuse service to gay and lesbian people in the state of Indiana simply because of their individual beliefs.
All of these events have something in common. They have all occurred on the front end of a social and moral revolution in our country’s history. They all developed as backlash against a growing change in public perception. Backlash against greater acceptance and inclusion of minorities in our national dialogue and in our national identity.
People, by our very nature, don’t like change. People hold tight to the old ways. The “we’ve always done it this way and it’s worked just fine” mentality. People in positions of privilege—white people, straight people, wealthy people—too often refuse to concede how the old ways are damaging to certain sectors of our society. This has been the case throughout history.
There can be no argument that the GLBT community has made monumental strides in the past few years. It seems as though more and more of us are able to marry the person we love every day. Laws are being passed to allow GLBT people to adopt. Laws now protect us against discrimination in the workplace. As a people, Americans are finally waking up to the reality that GLBT people are the same as everyone else. We have the same struggles, the same joys.
It’s no wonder, as this reality takes hold, that people of privilege are making a last-ditch effort to stop the rising tide of acceptance. Eventually, holding fast to blatant discrimination that can in no way hold up to the litmus test that is our constitution, people—including lawmakers—become reactionary. Just as they did in 1861 and 1963 and 1969 and 1977, people in positions of privilege are fighting back. And just as they did back then, their efforts will ultimately fail. Ill-conceived and discriminatory laws like the Indiana Religious Freedom Act do little more than galvanize true liberty-conscious Americans into action.
As gays and lesbians gain a greater foothold on the liberties we’ve been denied for so long, the American people are coming to the realization that civil liberties for all Americans makes moral, legal, and fiscal sense. Since giving GLBT people the right to marry, the nation has taken note that the world has not crumbled. Nothing has fallen apart. Nothing has fallen into the sea. Life goes on, and we are a better people for it.
The governor of Indiana, by kowtowing to the out-of-touch religious right, has chosen to come to this realization the hard way. And, as it should be, the American people are speaking loud and clear.
The outcry against Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been remarkably deafening. Companies from Starbucks to Apple to PayPal to NASCAR have come out publicly to condemn the so-called religious freedom law. The Governor of Connecticut signed an executive order on Monday forbidding state-funded travel to Indiana. Angie’s List has put on hold a proposed campus expansion project in Indianapolis. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has pledged to “dramatically reduce” the company’s investments in Indiana. Gen Con, a video game convention that brought 56,000 people to Indiana last year, has stated publicly that the religious freedom law will “factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years.” “Parks and Recreation” star Nick Offerman and his wife, Megan Mullally, have cancelled a scheduled May performance in Indiana, as has the rock band Wilco. Travel advice site, Gogobot, has added a stark message at the top of its Indiana state page warning would-be tourists of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Numerous tech companies, including EMC, Pivotal, Isilon, Oracle, Cloudera, and Hortonworks have withdrawn from the IndyBigData conference scheduled for May 7th at the Indianapolis Convention Center. And, in news that sets my basketball-loving heart aflutter, a petition is circulating that calls on the NCAA—the governing body of collegiate athletics—to relocate its Indiana headquarters. To date, the petition has over 60,000 signatures.
As the backlash increases on a daily basis, I have only one question for Governor Pence: How does it feel to be so blatantly and reprehensibly on the wrong side of history?